Two Women, Possibly White, Buy A Chinese Laundry

white women buy CHinese laundry 1962

  When Chinese laundries change owners, the typical situation involves new or younger Chinese buying the business of a retiring Chinese laundryman.  In 1962, however, the Decatur, Illinois newspaper reported that Mrs. June Lafferty and Mrs. Shirley J. Mann, who don’t seem to be Chinese, bought the Sam Lee Laundry that allegedly dated back to 1865 at 152 S. Main Street and renamed it, June and Shirley’s Hand Laundry.

However, according to a 1903 newspaper article, there were no Chinese listed in the first City Directory of 1871, with the first listing of a Chinese laundry occurring in 1883-4 for Joe Hop Hing who had a laundry at 152 S. Main Street.  Note that this is the same address of the Sam Lee Laundry the two women bought in 1962.  However, in 1883-4, the City Directory shows that Sam Lee Laundry was at 145 E. Prairie Street and a few years later at 149 E. Eldorado St.

Another inconsistency in the information is that the 1900 census records indicated that Joe Hop Hing did not immigrate to the U. S. until 1890, so if that is correct, he could not have operated a laundry in Decatur as early as 1883.

1900 chin laundrymen decatur IL

Interestingly, when I further researched the earlier history of the Sam Lee Laundry that was sold in 1962, I discovered there had been several other Chinese laundries in Decatur at the turn of the last century. However, they soon disappeared, possibly due to competition with white-owned steam laundries.  The 1903 news article reported that there was already a large decline in the local Chinese population:

chinese in decatur gone

The Hop Hing Joe laundry was reportedly part of a “trust” or part of a set of laundries in different cities that was operated by Chinese who had some financial and or family ties. This trust was alleged to be run by Hop Hing, and headquartered in St. Louis, but I could not verify this claim. Historian Huping Ling, author of Chinese St. Louis does mention a Chinese named Hop Hing in connection with his arrest in 1914 for manufacturing opium, and again in 1915. It does not seem likely that he is the head of the trust mentioned in the Decatur newspaper.

hop hing trustThe local newspaper noted in 1944 that business was ‘booming’ for the three Chinese laundries still operating.  It acknowledged Sam Lee as the “Dean of Chinese Laundry Men.”

decatur IL 1944 2 Ch laundries

A “laundromat” is no more a “laundry” than a “cafeteria” is a “cafe.”

Many people seem to confuse “laundromats” with “laundries” even though there is  a world of difference between them.  Many early Chinese immigrants operated “laundries” from the last quarter of the 19th century well into the middle of the 20th century.  At first, these were hand laundries but eventually many of them adopted steam powered presses and washing machines in place of scrub boards and heavy charcoal heated hand irons. In either case, the Chinese laundryman washed and ironed the clothing items for the customers.

hand laundry -1shirt sleevepressgfather

arthur leipzig Ideal Laundry, Brooklyn?1946
Ideal Hand Laundry, Arthur Leipzig, 1946

Today, these  full service “laundries”  have been largely replaced by “laundromats” and home washing and drying equipment. Laundromats are designed for customer self-service  and use coin-operated individual machines. They provide no ironing equipment or services.



Nonetheless, the tendency to use the term, “laundromat,”  as an equivalent of laundry persists. I wonder if ‘cafeteria’ will come to substitute for ‘cafe’ someday!

An Historic Marker for A Chinese Laundry Site in San Diego

Chinese Laundry, 1923 Marker

I was excited, and also a bit envious, to discover that San Diego placed a marker on a building in the historic Gaslamp Quarter which housed the Hop Lee Chong Laundry, which was  in continuous operation from the building’s construction in 1923 until 1964.

In contrast, I grew up in the Sam Lee Laundry in Macon, Georgia, which started back in 1885 and operated in the same building, (on the right edge of the photo below), until 1956 when my father sold the laundry, retired, and moved to San Francisco .

1906 Sam Lee laundry bib245-82

Sometime, probably in the 1970s, the historic building was demolished and converted into a parking lot, which stunned me when I saw it on a visit in 2004. I saw no historic marker at the site!

sam lee laundry-parking site 2004
I am standing in 2004 in front of what had been Sam Lee Laundry from 1885-1956.

A few years later, the street level open air parking lot was “upgraded” to an enclosed parking structure, but there was still no historic marker!  Maybe sometime in the future?

Sam Lee laundry site parking blg 2012


Early Charlotte Chinese Laundries

A Charlotte Chinese Laundry Before 1900

As in many other cities and towns in the Deep South, Chinese laundries existed well before 1900. Loo Sam, age 40, and a partner, Loo Show, age 36, probably a relative, operated one of the earliest Chinese laundries in Charlotte at 219 N. Tryon St.  In an 1891 newspaper advertisement, they promoted their laundry service as “neat, prompt, satisfaction guaranteed or no charges.”

loo sam ldy

However, a white-owned rival laundry, the Charlotte Steam Laundry, presented serious competition for Loo Sam and other laundries.  Their advertisement in 1891 promised their wagon would pickup and delivery at any time to any part of the city.

World View  and Social Life

In an interview in 1894 with Loo Sam and Ying, his new assistant, the newspaper reporter asked how they felt about the war between China and Japan.  They stated that Charlotte Celestials were indifferent or uninterested in the conflict, which Ying said was “none of my business.”

A newspaper article in 1901 described a social visit when Low Sam and his assistant Wun Lung hosted a “whole family of their own race.”  Chin Lee  and his wife  came with their children from Salisbury, N. C., where they had operated a laundry for 6 years to spend  two weeks while they searched for a new location in Charlotte.  The writer of the article exuded over the playfulness of their 5 year old son and how much joy he brought to the laundrymen who, as the journalist noted, had few opportunities to enjoy the company of Chinese children.

The Disappearance of One Laundryman in 1906

The operation of Loo Sam laundry, at some point, was taken over by Charlie Lum, perhaps due to Loo Sam’s retirement.  In 1906, however, Charlie Lum inexplicably disappeared and in so doing created a quandary for his customers. A newspaper article entitled “The Collarless Multitude” described the predicament they were in because they could not decipher the Chinese writing on the laundry tickets so it was going to be difficult to get the laundry items distributed to the proper owners.

Welcome for New Chinese Laundries in Charlotte

Although Chinese were targets of racial discrimination at this time in many parts of the United States, the prevailing reception for Chinese laundrymen around the turn of the twentieth century in Charlotte seems to have been positive as several new laundries opened to welcoming comments.  The headline in the Charlotte Observer for March 25, 1908 proudly proclaimed, ‘Chinese Laundry to Open,” in anticipation of an American-born Chinese, Jon Gee, who was about to start a new laundry in a store room.  The writer endorsed the arrival of this new laundry by stating, “Patrons of laundries well remember former institutions conducted by Chinese in this city and those who are inclined to this method of stiffening linen will probably give Mr. Gee a whack at their bundles.”

In 1908, the Charlotte Observer announced that Charlie Wing and his assistant, who had a laundry in Winston Salem, were coming to open one in Statesville.

“The washing will be done by hand and the ironing by machine.  The foreigners are agreeable fellows and will doubtless do a big business.  They do not belong to the laundry union, and their prices are lower than those of the steam laundries of the State which belong to the laundry association…”

In 1914, the Charlotte Observer announced “New Laundry Here” when Mr. Benj. D. Fong opened his laundry at 233 N. Tryon St., which was described as the third Chinese laundry in the city.